December 11, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Does Big Science Know What Science Is?

How well do the leaders of the world’s major scientific institutions understand the nature of science?  This rather audacious question is occasioned by recent statements by scientific leaders that might raise the eyebrows of some philosophers of science.
    No serious philosopher of science denies the benefits wrought by medicine, physics, chemistry and biology; after all, science took us to the moon.  But “Science is one of those troublesome nouns that seems to convey too little by standing for too much,” said philosopher Daniel J. Robinson in a lecture on philosophy of science.1  A philosopher with a deep respect for science, Robinson nonetheless went on to illustrate widespread disagreement among the world’s foremost philosophers of science as to just what it is, and how science can be distinguished from non-science.  Though few would see trouble classifying physics and chemistry as sciences, what about economics, political science, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and what earlier generations referred to as moral science?  Because of its many achievements, the word science has taken on an aura of honor and authority that can be misconstrued, as with the cults of Christian Science, Science of Mind, and Scientology.  Yet the need for precise definitions and criteria are often overlooked by practicing scientists.  Without clarity, using a broad-brush term like science can obscure rather than enlighten a discussion.
    Much of the controversy over the status of Intelligent Design (ID) revolves around the definition of science.  This came to the forefront in the Kansas school board decision to change the definition from “natural explanations for phenomena” (05/18/2005) to “explanations for natural phenomena” (11/08/2005)  To many evolutionists, this was a sneaky way for creationists to open the door for “supernatural” explanations in science.  Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences now at UC San Francisco, underscored that point of contention forcefully in a commentary in Cell about science education that he gave the alarming title, “A Wakeup Call for Science Faculty.”2 

We have recently received a wakeup call.  A new survey finds that two-thirds of Americans agree with some of our political leaders that “intelligent design theory” should be taught as an alternative scientific explanation of biological evolution.  What does this mean?  According to intelligent design theory, supernatural forces acting over time have intervened to shape the macromolecules in cells, thereby forming them into the elegant protein machines that drive a cell’s biochemistry (Alberts, 1998).  In other words, at least from time to time, living things fail to obey the normal laws of physics and chemistry. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

The 1998 reference was to his earlier paper in Cell titled, “The cell as a collection of protein machines: preparing the next generation of molecular biologists,” in which Alberts said, “the entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of large protein machines” (01/09/2002).  This quote got him into some trouble because it has been widely quoted by intelligent design proponents.  Clearly, Alberts and other evolutionary biologists do not dispute the existence of biological machinery that looks designed; the question is whether these natural objects can have natural explanations.  The quotation above also begs the question whether intelligence (the explanatory agent in “intelligent design”) necessarily denotes a “supernatural force,” or to what extent intervention can be natural, unnatural, or supernatural.
    “Natural,” too, is one of those words with multiple meanings, depending on the context.  Intellectual historian Alan Charles Kors demonstrated this point by listing several ways the word “nature” has been used historically in science and philosophy.3  Most scientists assume that nature refers to anything empirically observed: anything not “supernatural” is “natural,” in this view.  But nature can also mean a statistical norm: i.e., the usual action or behavior of something: for instance, it is natural for parents to care for their children.  Natural in this sense can have moral content and is not necessarily the opposite of supernaturalism.  “Finally,” his notes state, “we can understand nature as essence (that which distinguishes the creature from all other things).”  For example, when humans use their distinguishing faculty called reason to interact with the world, that behavior can be called natural; failing to use reason would certainly not be considered supernatural, but rather unnatural.
    That raises additional questions.  Does reason qualify as a “natural” phenomenon?  If it is subsumed under the laws of chemistry and physics alone, is it really reason?  Or does the observation of unnatural things fall within the realm of science?  Scientists can quickly fall into traps when trying to define science and natural too narrowly.  They might rule existing scientific studies, like abnormal psychology (11/13/2005), out of court, or even deny the validity of their own conclusions.  Yet the black-and-white meanings sufficed for Alberts to rule out intelligent design by definition.  Having summarily dispensed with ID, he appealed to emotional arguments to suggest that only evolutionary biology can cure cancer:

Teaching intelligent design theory in science class would demand nothing less than a complete change in the definition of science.  This definition would give those of us who are scientists an “easy out” for the difficult problems we are trying to solve in our research.  For example, why spend a lifetime, constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, trying to obtain a deep understanding of how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous if one can postulate a supernatural step for part of the process?  Yet we can be certain that, without the deep understanding that will eventually come from insisting on natural explanations, many powerful cancer therapies will be missed.

This argument, however, also begs the question whether physical and chemical laws fully explain biological behavior, such as how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous.  With computers, by analogy, it is clear that the silicon, plastic, glass and metal are “natural” (empirically observable) objects subject to the laws of chemistry and physics – drop a computer from a height, and it will fall at 32 feet per second per second and obey the second law of thermodynamics – yet an important part of the “nature” of the computer, its essence as a device to run intelligently-designed software, would be overlooked.  Knowing the physics and chemistry of the hardware would not help debug the software.
    In biology, mathematically-precise laws are hard to come by.  The Harvard Law states cynically, “Given precise conditions of heat, pressure and temperature, the organism does what it darn well pleases.”  Physics and biology are both classed as sciences, but the latter envies the elegant and deterministic equations of the former.  Even Mendel’s equations of inheritance and the Hardy-Weinberg Law are statistical in nature, with many exceptions.  The attempt to formalize evolutionary theory with mathematical rigor is fraught with problems and anomalies (see 10/26/2005, 10/01/2005, 08/19/2005).  Conversely, modern theoretical physicists delve into questions not amenable to observation, like string theory and multiverses, and even write elegant equations about conceptual frameworks that might be dubbed “super”natural (because they lack empirical verification even in principle).  To Alberts, however, more dogmatic assertions and emotional appeals suffice to restate the obvious, provided the words science and natural are left undefined:

The idea that intelligent design theory could be part of science is preposterous.  It is of course only by insisting on finding natural causes for everything observed in nature that science has been able to make such striking advances over the past 500 years.  There is absolutely no reason to think that we should give up this fundamental principle of science now.  Two-thirds of Americans might seem to have no real idea of what science is, nor why it has been so uniquely successful in unraveling the truth about the natural world.  As I write, the Kansas State Board of Education has just changed the definition of science in revisions to the Kansas State Science Standards to one that does not include “natural explanations” for natural phenomena.  What more proof do we need for the massive failure of our past teaching of biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences at high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States?

Sparing Dr. Alberts the additional challenge of defining the words truth and reason, it seems premature to expect readers of Cell to charge out on his proposed crusade without knowing where they are going.  He called on scientists to “completely redesign our undergraduate introductory science courses, so that all students come into direct contact with science as inquiry and are forced to develop their own understanding of what science is, and what it is not.”  Alberts praised the approach of teaching “science as inquiry,” which stresses the finding answers rather than memorizing rote facts.  This will be the demise of Intelligent Design, he assures: “It is through the careful analysis of why intelligent design is not science that students can perhaps best come to appreciate the nature of science itself.”  This seems to do little more than reinforce definitions: we define science in such a way that intelligent design is not science, and that explains the nature of science – i.e., the only alternative, methodological naturalism.  The reason why inquiry should be restricted to natural causes, furthermore, he failed to make clear.
    Throughout 2005, other leaders of large scientific institutions, such as Lord May of the Royal Society (11/30/2005), Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (07/11/2005, 02/11/2005), and the editors of Science and Nature (09/28/2005, 08/13/2005, 08/10/2005, 05/19/2005, 04/27/2005) have echoed sentiments similar to those of Bruce Alberts (03/24/2005)  Recognizing that early scientists referred to themselves as “natural philosophers,” perhaps this demonstrates the evolutionary principle of allopatric speciation by geographical isolation between the science and philosophy departments.  Or was that by design?


1Daniel J. Robinson, “Philosophy of science,” The Great Ideas of Philosophy, The Teaching Company, 2002.
2Bruce Alberts, “Commentary: A Wakeup Call to Science Faculty,” Cell, Vol 123, 739-741, 2 December 2005.
3Alan Charles Kors, lecture 18, “Bishop Joseph Butler and God’s Providence,” The Birth of the Modern Mind, The Teaching Company, 1998.

It is probably common for scientists to go through their entire educational career without a single philosophy of science class.  Elementary and junior high schools often teach a Baconian view: just collect lots of facts, make observations, write a hypothesis, test it, take notes, and produce a science project to attract the attention of the judges and give Mom and Dad something to brag about.  High school science is similar; science is what the textbook says and what scientists do.  The budding scientist goes right into the university and starts taking calculus, astrophysics, biology or whatever, gets a degree, narrows his or her studies in grad school, gets a PhD, gets a job, and goes into a career – all without knowing what science is.
    Your commentator took years of science classes where the definition of science and nature were just assumed, or else were given simplistic Elizabethan definitions with no mention of the subsequent revolutions.  The work consisted of math and word problems, homework, tests, experiments, memorization, projects, term papers and the like; rare was the teacher or professor who ever asked what is science?.  This pattern was given a jolt in a one-semester elective on Philosophy of Science.  The professor began by listing half a dozen well-known scientific facts on the chalkboard and proceeded to tell the class how all of them were untrue.  He also brought up disturbing questions about how we know what we know, how much the experimental apparatus perturbs the phenomenon under investigation, whether models accurately reflect reality, and why new theories have such a hard time getting a hearing.  This professor was also fond of pointing out how few scientists he knew actually thought about such questions.  Scientists, in general, hate philosophers.  They don’t like someone telling them what they can or cannot do.  Philosophers upset their equilibrium.  They hurt their self-esteem.  They react in a huff, “It takes a scientist to know what science is.”  Yet even feeling that way presupposes a philosophy of science.
    To be sure, scientists have an impressive track record like space travel, cures for infectious disease and the Human Genome Project (11/20/2005) to argue that what they are doing explains reality and produces useful results.  The problem is that these known successes are fairly limited to present-day, empirically-observable and repeatable phenomena.  Science Departments are not content to restrict their inquiries to these.  They want control of mind, psychology of morals and religion (Robert Winston, 10/13/2005), art, history, the origin and destiny of the universe and even of alternate universes.  They would push the Humanities off-campus if they could.  Runaway reductionist science needs the checks and balances provided by philosophers, ethicists, historians and yes, even theologians.  The question “what is science?” is not itself a scientific question.  It is a question of philosophy about science.  That raises serious questions about whether science can explain itself, as in the evolutionary literature that routinely expects to derive human rationality ultimately from hydrogen.  These scientists fail to recognize the self-refuting nature of that line of inquiry.  A self-refuting statement is false by definition.  C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame) once said, “A strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ ”  Metaphysics, therefore, must precede physics; the logical positivists, who wanted to rid science of metaphysics, were hopelessly stalled.  One must have an ontology (philosophy of being) and epistemology (philosophy of knowing) before one can even do science.
    The extreme scientism of the 1930s short-circuited itself when enough philosophers recognized that the proposition “only things empirically verifiable are real” was not itself empirically verifiable.  This episode represents one of many revolutions in philosophy of science.  The early Baconian model of science was found to be incomplete; scientists began emphasizing experimentation and repeatability, but this, too, did not always lead to new fundamental insights.  Scientists realized they needed to be able to make predictions.  That, however, led to some pseudoscientific practices that seemed to succeed at their predictions, while other legitimate models garnered only probabilistic correlations.  Karl Popper argued for the falsification criterion.  Yet how much falsification is enough, and by whom?  A theory is not often abandoned just because one critic claims to have falsified it, especially if a rival.  Evolutionary theory itself seems to outlast numerous falsifications, whether from the fossil record, speciation, Haldane’s Dilemma or irreducible complexity.  Thomas Kuhn proposed the controversial view that science had the character of a guild, with members reinforcing one another’s beliefs until a younger generation could overthrow the reigning paradigm.  Carl Hempel tried to define science according to the logical form of its explanations and the class of events to be explained, but this leaves out many areas assumed to be legitimate subjects for scientific inquiry, and permits spurious explanations without valid causal content.  Others argue that an explanation must be evaluated in the context of who asked the question, or that models only reflect simulations of reality, not reality itself.  Philosophers of science still argue these and many more issues.
    In short, as J. P. Moreland (Biola) has argued, there are no demarcation criteria for science that succeed in excluding all forms of pseudoscience while simultaneously including all disciplines recognized as valid by scientists.  The field permits contests at all levels among advocates of this or that subject, either wanting to gain the respectability of science, or wanting to exclude others from that respectability.  Moreland argued that the primary success of the Darwinian revolution was to redefine science to exclude theology out of hand, and thus claim that all prior scientists who had been doing their work based on belief in a Creator were doing religion and not science, by definition.  This explains much about the efforts by Big Science to exclude intelligent design.  It’s no longer necessary to play a fair game when you have disqualified your opponent.  Big Science, for example, gives approval to the methods of design inference in cryptography, forensics, archaeology and SETI (12/03/2005), but wants to exclude them by fiat from biology.  “The great obstacle to the progress of our understanding is always complacency,” said Robinson.  “A fundamentalist ‘scientism’ risks developing a hostility – at least an indifference – toward criticism, and thus it risks depriving itself of its own traditional sources of inspiration.”
    It is also unwise to ignore the role of personality in scientific disputes.  Science is, after all, a human invention, performed by fallible humans.  Bruce Alberts was not acting as Dr. Cool, Objective Scientist in his “wakeup call.”  He displayed the same human emotions and biases to which we are all prone.  Due to our finiteness, human science must always remain incomplete and tentative, its explanations judged for their utility rather than their ability to answer ultimate questions.  Surely sciences exist and pseudosciences exist.  We do, after all, fly space ships and treat disease.  Science must be doing something right; at some levels, it must have attained a reliable correspondence with the real world.  At the other extreme, nobody wants pyramidology or astrology labs competing in the university science department.  Yet the boundaries are not as sharp as Alberts draws them, or else he would have to admit that much of evolutionary theory and cosmology fail the definition.  Whether “supernaturalism” or “interventionism” are fair characterizations, or are illegitimate subjects for scientists to consider, become moot on closer inspection.  The history of science is filled with religiously devout people who believed that understanding nature was understanding the mind of God.  Newton himself was delighted that his theories helped to refute atheism.  Both lecturers for The Teaching Company’s series on the history of science have stated without hesitation that the picture of a “warfare of religion vs science” is a myth.  They both illustrated with many examples how belief in God and his creative design were instrumental in gaining new insights into the workings of nature.  A new book by Rodney Stark makes that case as well (see The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success on Amazon.com and Human Events).  Stark shows how the Christian commitment to rational theology were absolutely essential in the rise of science.  It can safely be assumed that each of these Christian practitioners of science believed in the essence of “intelligent design.”  This makes it hard to take seriously Alberts’ wakeup call that the sky is falling if intelligent design gets [back] into biology (consider Linnaeus for one example).
    We shortchange students by shielding them from these questions and giving them a spoon-fed, black-and-white picture of science vs. religion, natural vs. supernatural, and other shallow concepts based on false dichotomies.  The history of science is one of vibrant debates and controversies.  Philosophy of science has undergone many revolutions, and is still embroiled in debates between realists and anti-realists, rationalists and materialists, and scholars who actively dispute what is scientific and what is not.  Alberts, even though he has been a leader in calling biologists to recognize the machine-like nature of living cells, is characterizing the debate over intelligent design emotionally and dogmatically, begging these questions in a way that shields Darwinists from critical scrutiny and competition.  Is it not the Darwinians who teach that competition and struggle has produced all the complexity and beauty of life?  It is only by teaching the controversy that students will escape a shallow conception of this human enterprise called science that has amassed so much moral authority in our modern world.  Anything less is serfdom to the oligarchy Phillip Johnson has called the Mandarins of Science.  Anything less is bound to turn Big Science’s dogmatic views on origins into an unaccountable, self-perpetuating paradigm.  Daniel Robinson ended his lecture on philosophy of science by taking off on a rocket:

Getting to the moon and back is largely the work of rockets, once the basic laws and the necessary engineering have been worked out.  And so the question that survives, even in the wake of such a momentous achievement, is whether those laws, and that engineering, are drawn from a culture, so to speak, that is to have pride of place in assessing all of reality.  The word itself “reality” presupposes a percipient.  It’s not a sophist trick to ask, “Whose reality?” or, “Reality in relation to what?”  The aim throughout is to understand the setting of our own lives, at once physical, social, political, and moral.  And it remains to be debated whether ultimate authority in these respects is held by science.

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